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Review: Refuge: Transforming a broken refugee system. Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, March 2017 by Frances Webber
17.5.17
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We have all seen the TV pictures of the dusty refugee camps in Africa, tents as far as the eye can see. We have seen, too, the rescues in the Med, the bodies on the beaches of Greece, Spain and Italy, the walls and fences and dogs and batons forcing refugees back to Bulgaria or Serbia. We have witnessed the desperate shanties which grow up along the coast of northern France, at the Italy-France border, at many other borders, only to be bulldozed down again, the homeless refugees in Paris, Belgrade, the criminalisation of those offering lifts, food, shelter. We have despaired at our governments' response, at the EU's response, at the unending suffering of the refugees.

This book tells us there is no need to despair. It calls urgently for refugees to be given back some dignity and autonomy, by being allowed to work. Turning its gaze on the nine-tenths of refugees who stay in their region of origin in the Middle East or Africa, instead of the one-tenth who travel to the rich world, it demands an end to the 'out of sight, out of mind' model of isolated camps, humanitarian aid, continued dependency and limbo in which some refugees spend over two decades of their lives after leaving their own country. Humanitarian aid is for disasters, the authors say, not for exile which often lasts for many years. One of the 'big ideas' at the heart of the book is that refugees are entitled not just rescue to but also to autonomy, which must be restored to them by education and economic activity.

So far, so welcome. But when you dig beneath the benevolent surface, the book's message is profoundly objectionable, and dangerous. For the authors' take on the crisis of displacement wilfully ignores the role of the global economy, and their vision of autonomy for refugees is working for multinational corporations in special economic zones coupled with a ban on travelling outside their region of origin - a sort of captive reserve army of labour. It is hard to see the autonomy in that.

Remember when, at the height of the European 'refugee crisis' in October 2015, as Angela Merkel opened Germany's doors in a gesture of welcome, Theresa May, then home secretary, announced tough new plans to 'correct' the asylum system with its bias towards the 'strong, healthy and wealthy' refugees who were able to reach the UK to seek asylum? Mrs May had evidently been talking - or listening - to Messrs Collier and Betts. Their book fleshes out the same message. Most refugees are hosted in neighbouring countries ('havens'), and it's better for everyone if they stay there, where language, culture and living standards are similar, and from where they are more likely to return home to rebuild their country. Neighbouring countries provide safety, if not much else, and refugees who move on to rich countries ('honeypots') are thereby transformed into economic migrants, migrating for a better life and no longer fleeing because they have to. But there is no right to migrate from poor countries to rich ones: refugees have the right to rescue, but not to free movement. Spontaneous arrivals in Europe should not be allowed.

Under this doctrine, there is only anger and contempt for Merkel and her 'headless heart'. Encouraging refugees to come to Europe is a sentimental indulgence; Merkel's disregard of the Dublin regulation (which the authors insist in calling an agreement) weakened the European institutions (although the regulation itself allows for criteria such as 'first country of arrival' to be waived for humanitarian reasons) - and her gesture may, the authors speculate, have led to Assad intensifying his attacks on civilians, to a surge in people smuggling, to the resultant deaths in the Mediterranean, to a surge in right-wing populism across Europe and to Brexit.

Besides, they continue, in Europe, support for refugees costs far more - the authors claim a ratio of US$135 for every $1 spent on refugees outside Europe (the figure is based on an extrapolation from an estimate of German costs, so is unreliable, though prominent and repeated). Their integration is far more difficult, and if successful, robs the post-conflict society of its most highly qualified and educated people at precisely the time when they are most needed.

Behind the concern for post-conflict reconstruction we hear some familiar complaints, some of them alarmist and frankly mischievous. Refugees' unemployment rate in Germany is very high; they cost an awful lot; integration means quotas, and bussing for the children, and forcible integration of ramblers' clubs; refugees' 'cultural values' include 'extreme attitudes to women, infidels and apostates' which pose dilemmas for liberal hosts. The authors deny that complaints about refugees' culture are racist - racist objections, they say, are based on spurious biological categorisation. What this overlooks is that the essence of racism is attributing to a whole group ('refugees' or 'Muslims') the attitudes of a few ('to women, infidels and apostates').

For a book co-authored by a former World Bank economist, there are some remarkably evidence-free assertions at the heart of the arguments - and not just about refugees' 'cultural values'. In the discussion of the causes of the displacement crisis, we are told, for example, that it can't be down to global inequality, since this has 'fallen rapidly' since the 1990s. Really? I had naively thought that global inequality was increasing, and destabilising societies, with the ruthless expansion of markets by multinationals in the poor world destroying traditional livelihoods, pushing millions into the cash economy and pauperising them as the price of basic foodstuffs rises, and with the offshoring and secrecy of finance capital (headquartered in London) facilitating wholesale global kleptocracy. But no: it is apparently 'democratic elections' and 'the end of the cold war', 'technology' and 'Islamic extremism' that have led to 'fragile states', conflicts and displacement. The lucrative arms trade does not feature in the list, either: in fact, at a time when the UK arms trade is facilitating the Saudi bombing which is killing Yemeni civilians and causing famine, the authors deride those commentators who are 'inclined to explain whatever happens anywhere as being due to western actions', which they put down to a 'lingering vestige of colonialism'.

The causes of state fragility and conflict having been thus defined so as to exonerate rich countries and global corporations, it follows that their responsibility is limited to that of Good Samaritan coming upon distress. According to this vision, refugees, like the poor, will always be with us, and like Victorian businessmen- philanthropists, the authors set about improving their lot. 'Burden-sharing' should involve rich countries taking a few particularly vulnerable refugees for the symbolic value, but generally their role should be encouraging businesses to invest in projects in the 'havens', to create jobs to generate profits which benefit refugees, the host economy and post-conflict countries too. Governments, international bodies and major corporations must start thinking of refugees in terms of development and opportunity rather than as humanitarian burdens. Development projects involving refugee workforces must present 'mutual benefit' for host populations and for business.

The book is a cross between a manifesto, an evangelical tract and a sales pitch, and its ideas have been taken up enthusiastically by the powerful. The authors were invited to Davos in January 2016, and the following month the King of Jordan, British PM David Cameron and World Bank representatives agreed the 'Jordan Compact', which promised to bring 200,000 jobs to Jordan for Syrian refugees, including in the SEZ, in exchange for improved access to European markets and a $300 million, virtually interest-free World Bank loan. But the book doesn't tell us that within months the plan had faltered, with a fraction of the expected number of Syrian refugees being issued with work permits. Some were unable, others unwilling to get the permits for the work they wanted; permits are issued only for sectors Jordanians shun (the authors were aware that Jordanians didn't want to work in the SEZ, but didn't ask why, or think that Syrians might not want to either), and they tie workers to a particular employer.

Am I being churlish? After all, as I acknowledged at the beginning, the authors are trying to tackle a huge global problem in a way which gives the 90 percent of refugees who stay in their region of origin more than just a tent and dwindling daily rations. They rightly want beneficiaries of refugee status and its protections to be expanded beyond the narrow confines of persecution set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, to embrace those fleeing war, conflict, climate change and 'survival migrants' whose conditions of life give them no real option but to leave. They are right, too, in highlighting economic activity as key to refugees' wellbeing and integration. In this context, they point to Uganda as a shining example - where hosting refugees and integrating them into the national economy was a deliberate political and economic strategy. One difference they point to is that Uganda had surplus arable land which could supply refugees with produce for subsistence and sale.

Another (which they don't) is that refugee integration developed organically there before being adopted by government, and was not tailored to corporate needs. Untrammelled corporate power is making slaves of workers globally; as part of the problem, can corporations really be the solution?

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